My name is Alan, and I'm a fiction addict. I haven't read a novel in two hours and my fingers are burning to turn a page. If you're like me — hankering for your next literary fix — I want to make some recommendations for summer reading.
Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen, hardcover, 912 pages
First up: Peter Matthiessen's one-volume reworking of his 1990s trilogy about early 20th century life on the Florida frontier. Shadow Country is a watery, mythological and intensely psychological portrait of Everglades farmer and outlaw E.J. Watson (listen to Matthiessen read a passage).
Watson is one of our country's great shadowy characters, and Matthiessen explores his life and legend from multiple points of view. There's no other modern novel like Shadow Country in terms of its sweeping scope; its broad grasp of the land and the people who settled it; the dark events percolating up through the littoral waters of the Ten Thousand Island coast of southwestern Florida. The only other book that comes to mind that reaches out to embrace so much of America's darkness and light is Norman Mailer's so-called nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song. Coincidentally, both books end with a barrage of gunfire. But I'm not giving anything away; Matthiessen opens with the last moments of E.J. Watson's life and comes back to that same scene nearly 900 pages later. And you'll come back to that scene, too, if you stay with this story, recognizing that in tragedy we always know the end as we begin.
'The Invention of Everything Else'
The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt, hardcover, 272 pages
This past winter a gifted young writer named Samantha Hunt came out with her second book, The Invention of Everything Else. I loved it and have been holding on to it so I could recommend it to you for summer reading.
Its central character is also a historical figure: the great genius and inventor Nikolas Tesla, for whom producing lightning in his laboratory was almost an everyday trick.
When we first meet Tesla in the 1940s, he's quite ancient, but not too old for an encounter with a young New York hotel maid named Louisa. Louisa becomes fascinated with the aging genius (listen to Hunt read a passage in which Louisa discovers Tesla's powers), and I was fascinated too, both with Tesla and with Hunt's inventive novel, which explores power, time, love and curiosity, with a little bit of lightning thrown in for good measure.
Say You're One of Them, by Uwem Akpan, hardcover, 368 pages
The Africa of gifted short story writer Uwem Akpan is a far cry from the 1940s and a long way from New York. The characters in his remarkable collection are young — mostly children — and the stories are well-crafted and chilling (listen to Akpan read the opening of his story 'Fattening for Gabon').
Akpan, a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest, tells of young Kenyan girls prostituting themselves to pay their younger brothers' school fees, of Rwandan mothers hiding in ceiling crawl spaces while marauding tribal gangs come to slaughter them, of a deadly bus ride down the spine of Nigeria. The bus ride, in the novella-length story "Luxurious Hearses," is an elegiac allegory about the murderous state of contemporary African politics — a must-read for anyone interested in the fate of modern Africa and the world.
A Summer of Hummingbirds, by Christopher Benfey, hardcover, 304 pages
In a quieter time, in the wake of our own tumultuous Civil War, some American writers and artists tried to reorient themselves to a world more dynamic and forward-looking than before the war. In A Summer of Hummingbirds, literary scholar Christopher Benfey focuses on writers like Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and some painters as well, to present a fascinating and suggestive narrative about this period of readjustment and re-evaluation. Benfey argues for the hummingbird as an image of something approaching the deific, as in Dickinson's lovely poem "A Route of Evanescence" (listen to Benfey read Dickinson's poem):
A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel —
A Resonance of Emerald —
A Rush of Cochineal —
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head —
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride —
Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut, hardcover, 240 pages
In the middle of another war, a young soldier named Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter home:
I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than "missing in action." Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me with a lot of explaining to do — in precis:
I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944...
That's the first prose of Kurt Vonnegut's we encounter in Armageddon in Retrospect, a miscellany of mostly early pieces — some fiction, some nonfiction — edited by his son, Mark (listen to Mark Vonnegut read from his father's letter).
Light Years, by Susanna Moore, hardcover, 208 pages
In her lovely memoir Light Years, novelist Susanna Moore (a fellow fiction addict) conjures up scenes from her girlhood in Hawaii — her native beaches, her swims along the then-isolated island coast of Oahu (listen to Moore read a passage about swimming in the big waves at Makappuu Point) and her returns to shore, during which she found company in books about the sea. Selections from her girlhood reading are an essential part of Moore's own story, from Robinson Crusoe to Moby Dick and the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others.
Walking the Wrack Line, by Barbara Hurd, hardcover, 160 pages
There's scarcely anyone writing better about the natural world than the much-unheralded Barbara Hurd. In her book, Walking the Wrack Line, Hurd turns her spare prose and lyrical powers of observation to shingle beaches, spider crabs, jellyfish, dead sailors and such landlocked matters as why Franz Schubert never finished his Symphony in B Minor, known as the Unfinished Symphony. (Listen to Hurd read a meditation on driftwood.)
For Web readers, here are five extra titles worthy of a read.
America America, by Ethan Canin, hardcover, 480 pages
Ethan Canin's latest novel is about an American political primary campaign, as seen through the eyes of a New York State newspaperman and the boy he once was. Employing a nearly transparent style, Canin dramatizes a scenario in which a dedicated and visionary American politician enlivens his friends, acolytes and a large part of his party — only to bring everyone down to Earth in shattering fashion.
Over the past two decades, Canin has labored steadily to put his particular brand on the realistic short story, has experimented (with good success) with the novella form, and has increased his mastery of the novel with certainty, admirable intelligence and craft. Now, writing with loving detail about politics, family and work, Canin proves his worth as one of the most accomplished fiction writers of his generation.
The Boat, by Nam Le, hardcover, 288 pages
Born in Vietnam, raised in Australia and educated at the Iowa Writers Workshop, short-story writer Nam Le writes broad, embracing stories featuring a wide range of characters, including Vietnamese émigrés; Australian high school kids; Colombian drug lords and New York intellectuals. The vast scope of his debut collection is matched only by his prodigal talent. A lawyer by training, Le is about to return to Australia, where he plans to continue work on a novel in progress.
Havanas in Camelot, by William Styron, hardcover, 176 pages
This posthumous collection of occasional essays by one of the late 20th century's most respected American novelists is filled with asides on life (including cigar smoking, blood tests for certain social diseases, and a previously unpublished essay about his dog); views of Presidents (John F. Kennedy, Francois Mitterrand); and literature (with insights into his own work, his friendships with other writers like James Baldwin and Terry Southern and his feeling of kinship with Mark Twain). The result is a lovely wedding on paper of charm and wisdom.
The Messiah, by Marek Halter, hardcover, 350 pages
Yes, another novel, this one a historical venture by the French writer Marek Halter. Halter explores the life of David Reubeni, a 16th century proto-Zionist who lobbied European kings and the pope on behalf of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
Halter has previously written about biblical figures with the precision of a historian. In this novel he writes about historical figures with the passion of a religionist. As much a novel of ideas as a work of costume fiction, the book offers many dramatic glimpses into the often strange and distant world of pre-modern Europe.
Language for a New Century, edited by Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and Nathalie Handal, paperback, 560 pages
This ocean of verse from dozens of poets from around the world includes English-language work as well as translations from Hebrew, Arabic and various Asian languages.
The result is an anthology that offers a smorgasbord of unfamiliar — but often delicious — work that, in its essence, defines the multicultural experience of life. Take, for instance, the poem "As Agreed," by Nathan Zach (translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keller):
Look, as we promised each other,
We changed nothing and the world
Is as wonderful as it was, the rain
Tarries this year, but it will come:
It will come as long as we're still here....
The rain will come, and the books will come, and so will our reading of them, as long as we're still here.